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  • Marine Ornamentals

New England AquariumOur marine ornamental research often results in students presenting their findings at national and international scientific meetings. After the 2007 meeting of the World Aquaculture Association in San Antonio, Texas (at which our students were prominently featured) we were approached by the New England Aquarium (NEAq) with the idea of establishing a research affiliation.

New England AquariumThe aquarium has an active research section, but with limited space they have been unable to conduct studies that are of interest and importance to their daily operation. For our part, we immediately saw an exciting opportunity to engage our students while also conducting research applicable to a major public aquarium. In 2008, a formal affiliation agreement was signed and a jointly funded faculty position in marine ornamental aquaculture was added to the Department of Marine Biology (the position held by Dr. Andrew Rhyne). Examples of overlapping research interests:

1) Cultivation: There is a growing negative perception of collecting specimens from natural reefs - even if for public display. At present, this practice is poorly regulated, but increasing pressure on reef systems may lead to bans on wild collections. Public aquaria everywhere are motivated to undertake research on the cultivation of species of interest – a natural overlap with our interests.

2) Giant Ocean Tank (GOT): Of specific interest to NEAq are the fish housed in their GOT, many of which form breeding pairs, establish nests and lay eggs. Unfortunately, in this closed system none of the larvae produced survive, but this constitutes a unique and ready source of breeding tropical fish and an untapped pool of eggs and larvae. With many marine ornamental species it can take months or years to establish a successful breeding pair in captivity. In 2009, Dr. Rhyne began collecting eggs and larvae from the GOT, bringing them back to RWU to attempt to rear them successfully. Shown here in sequence is the development of a larval Queen Triggerfish from eggs collected in the GOT. Several of these fish were successfully reared, making this the first time this species has ever been raised in captivity (see Boston Globe article in the appendix)

3) Gulf Stream Orphans:  Every year the Gulf Stream carries a variety of tropical fish to the coast of Rhode Island - indeed this area is well known among divers for the ability to capture tropical fish in local waters each fall. These normally do not survive the winter and represent a viable local source of marine ornamentals that can be collected, reared and sold or traded.

4) Analysis of Marine Ornamental Import Data: Andy Rhyne is involved in two lines of research that bear directly on the national marine ornamental trade. The first is an on-going analysis of the import records documenting all marine ornamental species that arrive to this country. These data are collected by customs agents at ports and airports (in a dizzying array of formats) but have never been tabulated or analyzed. This project has already revealed gaps in our knowledge of this trade and should lead to better documentation and regulation at the national level.  In brief, we can have little confidence that we know the source, quantity and ultimate distribution of aquatic animals entering the country.  Among the preliminary findings are:

  • An optical character recognition software program was modified to automatically capture marine fish data from importation invoice documents. This allows rapid capture of invoice data with a built-in, automated learning and quality checking function.
  • Data analyzed for 2005 showed 11,000,000 individual fish from 1,802 species were imported into the U.S. in 8,000 shipments. This is far more than the ~1400 species that had generally been referenced from previous studies.
  • Import data are tracked on a declaration form that is filled out by the importer. From our analysis, this is only correct 50% of the time and does not track to the species level.
  • Import volume is inaccurately tabulated and is used solely to determine staffing needs at ports, not to provide guidance on import policy. Because of the lack of pre-shipment invoice assessment, it is nearly impossible for law enforcement to a priori determine which shipments require further inspection.
  • The data as currently collected does not allow for estimation of the total value of the trade, the trade of potentially injurious wildlife (e.g., invasive species), the trade in illegal species, or a means to track the impact on health, value and productivity of natural ecosystems.

This lack of accurate data presents major obstacles when attempting to develop importation regulations and policies, understand and control environmentally damaging wild harvest techniques at their source, prevent the introduction of pest (invasive) species that can inadvertently cause widespread ecological damage, and have confidence that the trade in threatened and endangered species is carefully monitored. Based on our work, we are confident it is possible to create a multi-faceted, real-time system of recording import data with subsequent analysis of key trends in the global aquatic animal trade. Follow the links below for the research article and media coverage:

http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0035808

http://green.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/05/21/counting-nemo-a-deep-look-at-the-aquarium-trade/

The second line of trade-related research involves the impact of harvest on both the coral reef ecosystem and the resulting market implications. Collectors for the aquarium trade function as a peculiar and unprecedented type of generalist predator that targets both abundant and scarce species, with a premium on biodiversity and scarcity per se.

A Marine Policy article that Andy co-authored in 2010 outlines how, as the world’s largest consumer of marine ornamental specimens, US ocean policy and market power can be used to improve and reform the coral reef wildlife trade.